FBI chief: Surveillance rules not based on race, faith

FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress yesterday that the bureau’s domestic-surveillance guidelines were being used properly and that agents were not employing them to target people for investigation on the basis of race.

July 29, 2010

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON–The FBI director’s defense of the guidelines at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing followed criticism by civil liberties groups that the guidelines unfairly target innocent Muslims. The guidelines “do not target based on race,” Mueller said.

Mueller’s response came during questioning by committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., about an Associated Press story indicating widespread cheating on an FBI test designed to ensure that agents understand the guidelines.

Mueller said agents were required to take 16 hours of training on the rules and that despite any cheating on the test he was confident that “our work force absolutely understands what can be investigated, how it must be investigated.”

Mueller told Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that the fact that a particular religious group is involved “is not enough” to justify surveillance. “There has to be something more,” Mueller said.

The FBI director misspoke on one point, telling Durbin that the guidelines require a suspicion of wrongdoing before any surveillance can begin. After the hearing, the FBI said, Mueller sent a note to Durbin saying he had misspoken. The FBI must have a proper purpose before conducting surveillance, but suspicion of wrongdoing is not required, he said.

In an interview on July 27, Farhana Khera, executive director of the nonprofit group Muslim Advocates, called the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide “quite an invasive data-collection system.”

“It’s based on generalized suspicion and fear on the part of law enforcement, not on individualized evidence of criminal activity,” said Khera.

The FBI says the guide equips agents with lawful and appropriate tools so the agency can transform itself into an intelligence-driven organization that investigates genuine criminal and national-security threats.

The manual, approved in December 2008 during the final days of the George W. Bush administration, establishes policy that guides all the FBI’s domestic operations, including counterterrorism, counterintelligence, crime and cyber crime.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed Freedom of Information requests on July 27 to FBI field offices in 29 states and Washington, D.C., to turn over records related to the bureau’s collection of data on race and ethnicity.

According to the ACLU, the FBI’s operations guide gives agents the authority to create maps of ethnic-oriented businesses, behaviors, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with concentrated ethnic populations.

Though some racial and ethnic data collection by some agencies might be helpful in lessening discrimination, the FBI’s attempt to collect and map demographic data using race-based criteria invites unconstitutional racial profiling by law enforcement, according to the ACLU.

Khera said the FBI had lowered the bar for sending undercover agents or informants into mosques and enabled the gathering of data about Muslims’ charitable-giving practices, financial transactions and jobs.

The FBI refuses to make public portions of the guide that deal with sending agents or informants into houses of worship and political gatherings.

The bureau has previously stated it would go into a mosque only if it had some reason to believe there was criminal activity within it, said Khera. If that is the standard, then the FBI should have no problem disclosing that section of the document, she said.